Driverless Cars – The Ethical Problem

Driverless Cars – The Ethical Problem

Car manufacturers are all busy creating the first driverless car that is showroom ready ... But are we ready to buy one?

Technology that takes over driving for us is slowly creeping into our cars. We now enjoy letting park assist manoeuvre into that tricky space for us and happily let cruise control keep us at a steady speed. Most drivers have come to accept that one day, in the near future, cars may completely take over all driving tasks. We know the technology for driverless cars exists and works. We know driverless cars will reduce fuel consumption, reduce traffic jams and improve safety – a machine is never drunk or tired or stressed. However, can a machine make a split second ethical decision in the same way the human mind can if an emergency occurs?

How will driverless vehicles decide how to behave? Will they be programmed to preserve as much human life as possible? Here at Rivervale Leasing we have been imagining a journey in a driverless vehicle ...

Scenario 1

Imagine this … you are driving down a country road, trees line the road and there is traffic coming the other way. From the adjoining fields behind the trees - a dog runs out. The human mind will make an ethical decision and act within a second, what will you do?

  1. Try to brake in time, even though you know the chances of stopping in time are slim.
  2. Swerve into the other lane of traffic hoping the others cars have seen the danger and are already hitting the brakes.
  3. Swerve off the road and take your chances with the trees, hoping you will somehow magically manage to avoid them all.

It is unlikely that every driver would choose the same option, we all have our own subjective reaction to an event. So what would your driverless car do? It has no subjective view of a situation to make a decision, it is programmed to behave a certain way. If preserving life is the main goal surely your driverless car would see A as the only option that would guarantee no human injury occurred. Would you be happy with this choice? If you chose B or C, would this change depending on who was in the car with you? If you were driving your own children and a couple of their friends home from school would you react the same way? What if the obstruction in the road was a child and not a dog? Would your driverless car be able to tell the difference?

Scenario 2

Imagine this …. You are driving down a road with brick walls either side. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a group of pedestrians end up in the middle of the road. There are cars approaching in the opposite direction. What will you do?

  1. Brake and start honking – they ran onto the road, they can run out of it!
  2. Swerve into the other lane of traffic, they have seen the group of pedestrians and will be making room for you.
  3. Drive into the wall, possibly injuring yourself, but no pedestrians or other vehicles will be involved.

For your driverless car, if the aim is minimal injury, option C looks the most attractive. But how would you feel knowing your driverless car may endanger your life to save others?

Before driverless vehicles are common on our roads these ethical dilemmas need consideration and a decision must be reached as to how the car will behave. Who will get to make these decisions? What would you decide?

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